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Inspiring Progress Toward Learning Goals

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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Young African American girl smiling holding chalk in front of a black board

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

The topic of metacognition can seem quite abstract -- a complex concept for students to embrace. But it is worth the effort to develop a metacognitive mindset in setting goals for learning and in monitoring progress toward achieving those goals. For teachers empowering students to think about their thinking with the aim of improving learning, it can be truly inspiring when they see the resulting changes in students' motivation, resilience, and learning gains.

A 2014 study by Veenman and colleagues suggests that metacognition, or "cognition about cognition," may account for some 40 percent of the variation in learning achievement across a range of outcomes. One of the major benefits of guiding students to become more metacognitive is in the context of goal setting and the impact on their motivation when they take charge of learning goals.

Let's consider a common scenario.

Learning With -- and Without -- Metacognition

A student of average motivation (he understands the importance of academic performance and wants to do well in school) has set a goal to get a good grade on an upcoming test. In preparation, he spends 30 minutes the night before the test reading the textbook. He is disappointed when he scores poorly on the test. The student might interpret his low test results to mean that he lacks the ability to learn the material, and consequently begin to disengage from the subject. Discouragement and declining motivation could set in.

Instead, let's say his teacher uses the test results (the student in our example was not the only one who did poorly) as the foundation of a lesson on metacognitive and cognitive strategies to improve study habits. The teacher suggests that, instead of just reading the textbook the night before the exam, the students will spend class time brainstorming strategies for more effective test preparation. From this discussion, the student in question begins to incorporate these new practices into his study habits:

  • Reading key material before the classroom lesson and discussion on the topic
  • Reflecting on his thinking as he reviews his notes to identify what information is clear and what might be confusing
  • Creating index cards with concepts that he wants to retain for additional review
  • Checking his understanding as he reads, and rereading to clarify
  • Reviewing the index cards in different locations -- at home, in the school library, and with friends in a study group -- to tap into "location memory"
  • Noticing how his understanding of what he read the night before evolves during a classroom discussion
  • Asking for clarification from the teacher
  • Thoroughly reviewing his class notes, index cards, and the textbook again the night before a test
  • "Rehearsing" his developing knowledge by explaining key concepts to himself or to a peer (in effect, thinking from the perspective of a teacher as well as a student)

As a result of thinking more consciously about his learning and setting, and more effectively working toward a learning goal, the student will be much more likely to achieve or even exceed his aims. That success in turn fuels motivation to continue employing metacognition and honing the use of metacognitive and cognitive strategies that will serve him well in school and beyond.

Goal Setting and the Brain

When teachers help students connect to classroom goals in a way that has personal meaning for them, there is a much greater chance that they will be motivated to engage in the sometimes hard work required in learning. As we noted in a previous post, the prefrontal cortex has been identified as the seat of metacognition, but this area of the brain relays input to another region in the basal forebrain (at the front and lower part of the brain) called the nucleus accumbens. This region is known as the brain’s "reward circuit," part of a pathway that stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to rewarding experiences -- such as celebrating success in achieving a learning goal. Dopamine is involved in many brain functions and is known for its role in important aspects of learning, including motivation, memory, and attention.

In our graduate studies and live events, a central concept is never question ability, always improve strategy. By communicating that learning ability can be improved, teachers can emphasize how monitoring their thinking during learning will help students to:

  • Set learning goals
  • Choose the most effective learning strategies
  • Reflect on what they know and what they need to find out
  • Adjust strategies accordingly
  • Learn from experience

This process can be quite inspiring for students. Marcus recalls an interaction with a student while he was leading a statewide initiative in Florida on brain-based teaching. As part of this project, Marcus spent time in classrooms modeling thinking strategies. During one of these sessions, a student said to him, "Thanks for helping me to see that it's up to me to get smarter and smarter." This has been our experience as well on both a personal and professional level: Becoming more metacognitive has been a game changer for us as learners, speakers, and authors!

How might setting learning goals underscore that students are in charge of their thinking and learning? What metacognitive strategies have proven useful for your students?


Veenman, M. V. J., Hesselink, R. D., Sleeuwaegen, S., Liem, S. I. E., & Van Haaren, M. G. P. (2014). "Assessing development differences in metacognitive skills with computer logfiles: Gender by age interactions." Psychological Topics, 23(1), 99–113.

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Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!'s picture
Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!
Instructional Specialist for Secondary Literacy

Thank you for highlighting the importance of teaching students how to learn! It is especially important today with online learning at the forefront--independent learning is a must! I teach two lessons at the beginning of the school year that I revisit every time I give back a graded assignment. One is "How to Fail", where I teach students about what Carol Dweck calls Growth and Fixed Mindsets. The other is "How Memory Works", where I teach about the memory process and how students can study more effectively.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Marie,

I agree it is important to start teaching students how to learn early in the year and continue throughout. Graduates of our degree programs that have brain-based teaching as focus share that their students also enjoy learning about the neuroplasticity of their amazing brains. We have a specific blogpost here at Edutopia on that topic at

Keep on sharing your passion and strategies for creating literate learners!



haileym06's picture

Thank you for writing such a great post on encouraging students to learn how to think and use their brain power! I thought that your stress of "never question ability, always improve strategy" was profound. So often in my sixth graders, I see that they think that doing poorly on an assignment means that they didn't have the ability to do better. It isn't until we cover strategies for studying and how to piece together concepts in a way that works for them that they realize that it's about strategy, not ability!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Hailey,

Thank you for your post and your work! You highlight two important aspects of our teaching: 1)- teaching students the power of their amazing brains and letting them discover their learning power, and 2)- teaching them strategies as tools for success.

If you haven't done so, you might want to check out our other posts. Many of our posts on Edutopia feature key facts about the amazing human brain and strategies to teach students.

Keep up the good work!



Margot Schultz's picture
Margot Schultz
Waldorf Teacher

This is great and seems to have a lot of overlap with NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). The idea of pre-framing (helping students understand the personal benefits of doing something before asking them to do it) and getting leverage to inspire action remind me of metacognition, but it's also distinctly it's own process/philosophy.

This reminds me not to take things for granted or assume that students see things in the same way I or we as adults do. They are still 'figuring out the world' and often times we need to create the connections and overall (meta) map for them. Brilliant article. Thanks for the share!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Dear Margot,

I should start out by saying that I became a fan of Waldorf education when I was chair of the Department of Education at the University of Detroit Mercy where we had a program that got great reviews. Kudos to you as a Waldorf educator.

Your reference to NLP is interesting, however, I should say that our basis in research about goal setting, metacognition, and the brain comes primarily from the fields of cognitive education and psychology and emerging understandings from neuroscience.

I am impressed with your insights about students still "figuring out the world" and the importance of our understanding that they have a different point of view. This seems key for effective educators! In fact, arguably, helping students to develop so they can be a world citizen today might be one of the most important goals of schooling.

Thank you for your insightful comments!


Luiz's picture

I agree it is important to teach students how to think about their thinking. Carol Dweck's book, Mindset is also an excellent book to read and learn about how to help students learn to practice a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset. I wish that when I was in high school and college I had understood this concept. I think that I allowed the fixed mindset to stop me from doing things that I wanted because I was afraid to fail. Because of this, I try and tell my students that mistakes are just opportunities to learn. In addition to just telling, I give them a chance to look over any assessment, review it, and ask questions. I try to give my students another chance to show and prove to themselves that they have learned.
I was wondering who the author was for the article you referenced "How Memory Works."

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Luiz,

Indeed Mindset is a great connection to our work! There are a number of articles titled "How Memory Works" So I can't answer your question. However, a very practical blog posting of ours gives teachers some good ideas for helping students to develop more working memory 'space'

All the best to you!


Kyla Craig's picture

I really enjoyed this informative article about how goal-setting can guide students to think meta-cognitively about their learning and ultimately increase motivation. I think the phrase 'never question ability, always improve strategy' is a powerful reminder that we can help our students develop learning processes that will set them up for lifelong learning and growth.

How might setting learning goals underscore that students are in charge of their thinking and learning?
Goal- setting can underscore that students are in charge of their thinking and learning if students are guided to self-monitor throughout the progress. Students need to check in on their progress, adjust where necessary, track changes that improve their learning, and allow mistakes to inform their next moves. All these self-regulatory processes help students 'think about their thinking' to improve. Learning goals can also increase self-efficacy, or the belief a student has that they are capable of learning or achieving different performance levels. Students need to believe they are able to improve, or they will not be motivated to make actions to attain a goal. If students begin to perceive progress in learning towards a goal, and to attain goals based on their efforts, they will increase their motivation to work towards harder or more distal goals. They will increase their belief that their learning is changeable and not 'fixed'.
What metacognitive strategies have proven useful for your students?
As mentioned in the article, modeling can be a powerful strategy to help put students in charge. Thinking aloud and showing students how we set goals, track progress and overcome challenges can help students understand that goal-setting is an effective method for learning, and that purposeful actions help us improve. Conferencing with students is a useful strategy for educators to guide through goal-setting processes. Conferences are helpful for ensuring the goal is effective (specific, challenging, time-specific and meaningful) as well as monitor progress, give feedback, reflect and celebrate successes! We also need to give many opportunities for students to make mistakes in a 'low stakes' environment. To try this process and improve from it, students need to know they can take risks. Their learning and progress is what we should reflect on, not a final performance grade.
How can our traditional method of grading 'performance outcomes' instead of processes affect the development of metacognition and self-regulation?

Kyla Craig's picture

Thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely be looking into this! Teaching and modeling a growth mindset is important for our students to learn that they can take purposeful actions to improve their learning, for their whole lives. If students are truly to learn this, they need lots of opportunities to learn from their mistakes, instead of focusing on the final performance outcome. Edward Briceno has a great TedTalk called "How to Get Better at the Things You Care About" . It discusses 'lowering the stakes' for our students to allow them to safely work on skills, adjust, and use mistakes as information that guide next moves and steps to improvement.

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